Senior citizens benefit from pet ownership in many ways. However, they arefacing challenges that are impacting on their decision to keep companionanimals. Caroline Zambrano explores the reasons why seniors are missing out onpet love and how some programs are making a positive change across Australia.

The multiple benefits of pet ownership have been supported by science – ourfurry friends give us unconditional love and companionship, not to mentionkeep us physically and mentally active with daily walks and opportunities tosocialise with other people.

This is particularly true for senior citizens aged 65 and above. The increasedrisk of isolation and loneliness in older adults has a profound impact ontheir health and wellbeing, often associated with depression and reduction inmobility and daily living activities¹. Living with a pet provides company andreduces feeling of loneliness.

Companion animals also help establish a structured daily life, requiringregular meals, walks, grooming and attention – all of which helps to organisea day with meaningful activities and provides cues for self-care activities,according to studies².

However, more and more senior citizens are finding the challenges of owning apet outweigh the advantages and are less likely to have a companion animal intheir lives. This is shown by the latest data from the Household, Income andLabour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, which covers 17,000 Australiansannually (2001 to 2018).

The HILDA study is funded by the Australian Government Department of SocialServices and managed by the Melbourne University’s Institute of AppliedEconomic and Social Research. It provides policy makers with unique insightsabout Australia, enabling them to make informed decisions across a range ofpolicy areas, including health, education and social services.

The 15th Annual Statistical Report of the HILDA Survey shows people aged 65and over account for 22.5 per cent of non-pet owners but only 11.1 per cent ofpet owners. The older age groups also have a relatively high proportion of catowners compared to dog owners.

“These results probably have a lot to do with life stage. Older people arepossibly less likely to want to maintain an active dog as a pet,’ said DrFerdi Botha from the University of Melbourne who co-authored the chapter withProfessor Roger Wilkins.

To an elderly person, a pet can mean everything. Then why are so many olderadults missing out on pet love and what are we doing to turn this around? PetIndustry News investigates pet ownership in the ageing population and learnshow support programs are making a difference for seniors and their pets aroundthe country.

A 2019 published study Pet Ownership and Human-Animal Interaction in an AgingPopulation: Rewards and Challenges by university researchers Marie-JoseEnders-Slegers and Karin Hediger explores the risks and challenges linked tothe older age of pet owners.

The study suggests the financial burden of pet care and pet healthcare,especially for older animals, is an issue for seniors whose financialsituation is likely to be weaker than before retirement.

Simon Hovell, Chief Marketing Officer for Greenstone Financial Services, thedistributor of Seniors Pet Insurance, understands how caring for a pet canbecome more challenging as people age – particularly when it comes to caringfor their pet’s health.

“For some, getting to a vet can be tough, as can coming up with the funds topay for certain ailments. This is where pet insurance may be of benefit,” hesaid. “We have seen an over 10% increase in the uptake of Seniors PetInsurance over the 2020 period; a sign that many who may have been consideringpurchasing or adopting a pet have done so over the course of the last year.”

Besides covering up to 80% of eligible vet bills, up to an annual limit of$12,000 and with no excess to pay, pet insurance products like Seniors PetInsurance also offers emergency boarding should their owner be hospitalised.Furthermore, the GapOnly service (via eligible vets) allows owners to just paythe difference between their pet insurance benefit and the vet’s invoice.

“We’re glad pet owners over 50s are seeing the benefit of protecting theircompanion animals and appreciate the peace of mind pet insurance can providethem,” said Mr Hovell.

Many pensioners can financially support their dog’s medical care, however,unexpected circumstances can leave them faced with vet expenses that are nolonger affordable.

15/04/2010 NEWS: Jed, the 8-year-old border collie dog,cost his owner Jennifer Hunt $30,000 in spinal surgery after he slipped a diskchasing seagulls.

Pet Medical Crisis is a tax-deductible charity that helps Aussie pensionersand disadvantaged owners of pets in Victoria to meet the high costs ofveterinary care; where the pet owner’s inability to fund the care wouldotherwise result in death or significantly impact their pet’s quality of life.

Since it was established in 2010, Pet Medical Crisis has distributed more than$500,000 to over 730 pets and continue to provide a much-needed service to thecommunity, explained Jennifer Hunt, Founder and CEO of Pet Medical Crisis.

“For seniors, their pets are so important to them; they are integral to theirwellbeing. Most pensioners will feed their dog before they look afterthemselves,” she said. “A lot of people live week to week on the aged pension.They manage, but when something happens to their pet, pensioners can’t affordto pay anything extra to get their pet the veterinary care they need.”

That’s where Pet Medical Crisis comes in to help.

“Our charity is not a pet charity. We are there for the aged, disability anddisadvantaged to try to help them to avoid unsustainable debt, which hasmental health implications and threatens their ability to have a reasonablestandard of living,” said Ms Hunt. “An unexpected veterinary bill can impacton ability to pay rent, utilities, and some owners come to the brink ofhomelessness. If we can help with that one thing, relieve that financialburden, the pet and owner can be re-united and together have the strength theyneed to go on.”

Next year Pet Medical Crisis is expected to expand to NSW and the followingyear to Queensland.

**Challenges of pet ownership for seniors

Other reasons why seniors don’t have a pet include a changed lifestyle, toomuch cleaning after their animal, health problems and physical impairments andgrief over the loss of a previous pet.

Some older people also worry about what will happen if they pass away beforetheir pets or if they become disabled or otherwise unable to provide care. Thethought of placing their beloved pet in other homes or shelters can also bescary. For other older adults, after so many years of looking after otherhumans and pets, they prefer a life free from that responsibility.

Also, finding pet friendly accommodation is a big issue in Australia. Despitemore than 60 per centᶟ of Australian households having a pet, laws andpolicies remain restrictive across may housing sectors and many owners have nochoice but to give up their animals to have a place to live.

“Each year in Australia, tens of thousands of cats and dogs are euthanisedbecause there are no homes for them,” said Kristina Vesk, CEO of the CatProtection Society of NSW. “A significant contributor to this death toll isthe lack of pet-friendly accommodation, for renters and owners, and for peopleexperiencing short-term crises. If we’re to tackle the problem of killingcountless healthy cats and dogs each year, we must make it possible and legalfor the pet-loving population to responsibly keep pets.”

Ms Vesk said while there had been many improvements to laws and regulationsover the past few years, generally it’s up to individuals to convincelandlords and strata corporations to accept pets.

“Our clients are in a lucky minority. As a no-kill shelter, Cat ProtectionSociety of NSW looks after surrendered cats until they’re adopted, but thatdoesn’t alleviate the pain of giving up a much-loved family member.Importantly, we try to prevent those surrenders by advising people onstrategies, like submitting pet resumes with rental applications. It’s reallyencouraging that so many of these have been successful.”

It’s not just the housing sector with a negative attitude to pet ownership.Some family members and formal caregivers (ie doctors, nurses) of the elderlyare afraid of zoonoses, infections or extra workload, although the risk ofdiseases transmitted between animals and humans through touching or keepingpets is minimal, except for people with compromised immune systems or otherconditions, according to researchers Enders-Slegers and Hediger.

Falls caused by pets a risk for seniors

But older people have a greater risk of injures and fractures due to fallsassociated with pets, said Dr Anne Quain, companion animal and animal welfareveterinarian, PhD candidate and lecturer in the Sydney School of VeterinaryScience.

“Animals and people collide, usually accidentally, with consequences varyingfrom minor to serious,” she said. “In the past year I’ve personally had twofamily members knocked over accidentally by dogs, one suffering a catastrophicspinal injury.”

Dr Quain believes it comes down to ensuring that dogs are well-trained andkept on leash when around vulnerable people, like seniors and children. Shealso shared a few other tips:

  • Be mindful of where the animal is located.
  • A collar with a bell can help announce your dog or cat is approaching.
  • Keeping bowls, litter trays and pet beds out of the way can reduce trip hazards.
  • Use baby gates to confine pets to parts of the house at certain times, such as when hosting visitors.
  • Wear sensible, non-slip footwear when out walking your dog.
  • Train your dog not to pull on the lead.
  • In the presence of dogs, hold a fence or railing to prevent getting knocked over.

Beyond the above risks, studies reveal more complex health and safety concernsabout pet ownership among senior citizens. The 2019 study suggests the strongbond with their pet might cause older adults to jeopardise their own health,spending their limited money to provide food or care for their pet rather thanfor themselves or they may refuse to be hospitalised because they are notwilling to leave their pet without care.

And for some seniors, the thought of their beloved companion animal being in aboarding kennel may still be enough to prevent them from seeking medical care.

There are also pet welfare implications of ageing owners who experience adecline in physical health and strength. They are unable to provide adequatecare for their pet, resulting in animal neglect, coexisting with the inabilityto take care of oneself, according to the research.

True story of Michael and Carla

Here’s a true story about Michael (surname not supplied) and his 14-year-oldFox Terrier named Carla. Michael was never married and didn’t have anychildren. He lived a full life, serving in the army and being a harness racingjockey in his youth.

Carla was Michael’s only family and they lived together in Sydney. He saidCarla was “the best dog he ever had”. Unfortunately, Michael suffered from anumber of health issues and said he was “ready to go” and that Carla was theonly thing keeping him here.

When Michael went into hospital, his neighbour assisted with looking afterCarla and when this neighbour moved away, there was no one to assist with thelittle dog. That’s when RSPCA NSW Community Aged Care stepped in to help carefor Carla at the shelter and tended to all her medical needs, including healthchecks, vaccinations, dental care and other preventative treatments to ensureshe stayed as healthy as possible, because Carla was all Michael had.

Besides assisting Michael with Carla whenever he went to hospital (10 times,in fact), RSPCA volunteers assisted with taking Carla out for short walks asMichael was bed bound and could only walk very short distances with theassistance of a walking frame.

Then sadly, Carla was diagnosed with mammary cancer and was recommended to beput to sleep. Michael couldn’t bear the thought of being without Carla as hewould have no one. Carla was kept comfortable with pain relief and closemonitoring so Michael could have the time to say goodbye.

Two months later, Michael was admitted back to hospital and Carla was broughtback into the care of the RSPCA. Michael knew the kindest thing he could dofor Carla was to let her go. Carla visited him in the hospital to say one lastfinal goodbye and 12 days later, Michael passed away. Carla’s ashes wereburied with Michael, as per his wishes.

That heart-breaking story is the reality for so many other people who arestruggling to care for their beloved pets in their old age. The RSPCA NSWCommunity Aged Care program (originally called POOPs – Pets of Older Persons)started in 2003 to meet the needs of elderly patients of Sydney’s St JosephHospital who delayed coming into hospital because they didn’t have an optionfor pet care.

“People were surrendering their animals to the RSPCA to be able to seekmedical help for themselves, which did not help their own recovery due to thesadness of losing their beloved pet,” said Dr Ann-Margret Withers, SeniorManager of RSPCA NSW Outreach Programs.

Today, the Community Aged Care program is the largest of RSPCA’s socialsupport programs with the greatest number of clients and runs state-wide.

“We started the program with one part-time case worker and today have fourfull time case workers, two part-time senior case workers and a managerworking across all our social support programs (including homelessness anddomestic violence),” said Dr Withers.

The program supports socially isolated seniors by providing temporary boardingor foster care when the owner needs to go to hospital, as well as providingpayment plans to access vet treatment. Monthly home visits to check on theowner and pet’s welfare, apply tick and flea prevention and undertakegrooming, as well as assistance with transportation to veterinary appointmentsis available to clients within the Sydney metro region.

Local volunteers may also give day-to-day support with things such as walkingpets daily, bathing and cleaning up after the pet.

The program is available across the state, providing emergency boarding untilthe owners returns home, keeping the animal safe and healthy, preventingrelinquishment of the pet and ensuring pets and people stay together, said DrWithers.

“All of our shelters know that if an aged person comes in to surrender theiranimal, they can be referred to our aged care program. Our plan is to assistother RSPCA branches in a number of towns around NSW to support aged careclients,” she said.

RSPCA’s Home Ever After program takes care of seniors’ concerns about passingaway before their pets do.

“Pet owning seniors are an important section of the population and we need toconsider pets in all policies,” said Dr Withers. “For instance, by notallowing pets on public transport, we limit how they can travel. We haveclients who walk for miles because they were unable to get transport.”

COVID impacted support for seniors

Non-profit organisation POOPS (Pets of Older Persons) have been keeping thepeople and pets of WA together since 2010 with a fee-free pet care service forthe elderly (over age 65) as well as those with a disability.

POOPS’ media liaison Priscilla Lynch explained the organisation is runentirely by volunteers who assist with basic pet care needs, such as walkingdogs, providing transport (to vets, boarding kennels etc), administeringmedication and even basic dog training. POOPS also works with otherorganisations and companies to provide additional services, such as vet careor grooming.

Like with many other organisations, the COVID pandemic also impacted POOPS’operations. When the pandemic started last year, POOPS restricted operationsfollowing the guidelines from the government at the time – for example, notgoing into people’s homes, ceasing walking if you were unwell and sanitising.

“All clients were contacted and most were happy for the walks to continue, butwe did have some clients stop their walks” said Ms Lynch.

However, during the brief February 2021 lockdown in WA, they did stopoperations “which was difficult but in the best interest of our clients’welfare,” she said.

COVID had an opposite impact on some charities, such as Meals on WheelsCentral Coast, which provides a convenient meal delivery and social supportservice to members of NSW’s Central Coast community.

Normally supplying 15,000 meals a month to seniors and people with disabilityin the Central Coast community, COVID pushed the number over 16,000 meals amonth, said Pip Wilson, Marketing and Events Manager of Meals on WheelsCentral Coast.

“A high percentage of seniors in our area have pets. They are part of theirfamily and sometimes the closest companion they have,” she said.

To alleviate some of the financial and physical burdens of pet ownership, theMeals on Wheels for Furry Friends project helps deliver affordable, nutritiouspet food to elderly pet owners by friendly volunteers.

Meals on Wheels Central Coast for Furry Friends pet food range provides abalanced diet for both cats and dogs using raw and natural ingredients. Thepet food is clearly labelled and stored separately to the client’s meals.

“Not only is delivery free, but volunteers also take time to talk with petowners to ensure they and their pets are doing well and provide support and ahelping-hand with pet feeding if needed,” said Ms Wilson. “A lot of the time,clients feed their pet their own meal instead of eating the food themselves.We deliver an economical pet food range so they can afford to keep theirpets.”

Mobility can also be a challenge for older adults, despite the limitationsimposed by the COVID outbreak. Some seniors felt intimated when out shoppingdue to long ques and lack of food on shelves. It is also difficult to lugaround heavy pet food packages.

“Meals on Wheels for Furry Friends saves older pet owners from having to haulkilos of costly pet food from the shops back to their homes and make it mucheasier for them to keep their furry friends,” said Ms Wilson.

The power of pet therapy for the elderly

Organisations like Delta Society also offer pet therapy (also called AnimalAssisted Therapy) which has a positive impact on verbal communication functionand attention, in particular with those suffering from Alzheimer’s ordementiaᶟ.

In fact, studies show that just 15 minutes with a dog, cat or another serviceanimal can increase brain activity and serotonin levels in seniors. Serotoninis known as “the feel-good hormone” and plays a crucial role in bodilyfunction as well as our experiences of positive emotions. The result: heartrate, blood pressure and stress levels immediately drop.

In Victoria, the LinkPETS program, run by Latrobe Community Health Service,places pet loving volunteers into the homes of socially-isolated people whoare over the age of 65 and cannot fully care for their pets. Volunteersprovide these older citizens with social support, such as companionship,taking their dogs for a walk and basic grooming.

“Pets play an important role in seniors’ lives. They offer companionship andhelp ease social isolation. We help older Australians stay in their homes forlonger by ensuring their pets are cared for and providing connections tofriendly volunteers,” said Sarah Burton, Link Health and Community VolunteerSupport Officer.

Senior pet owners often face social isolation and mobility challenges due toongoing health issues, which prevents them from being able to provide thenecessary exercise for their pets. Some older pet owners also do not haveregular visits from family or friends, said Ms Burton.

“LinkPETS volunteers help older citizens care for their pets and provide themwith friendship to help them stay connected to the wider community,” she said.

“There are similar programs that run in small pockets out there. We’d love tosee other organisations pick up this model in other parts of Australia as thisprogram works and is needed!”

Many organisations across Australia are making a measurable difference formany senior citizens who want to have pets in their lives, but they need helpto continue their efforts. Governments need to put seniors with pets on thepublic agenda.

Ms Lynch from POOPS asked volunteers what message they had to the policymakers about supporting senior owners of companion animals. Here are somecomments:

  • A review of the strata bylaw that makes it possible for strata management to blanket ban pets of any type.
  • More aged facilities that allow pets and provide support to owners through community engagement and project partnerships, such as POOPS.
  • Allow pets to travel on public transport and taxis, like in the UK and other places.
  • Footpath education for walkers and bike riders. A little TV commercial on how to be respectful and share the space.
  • More affordable companion animal care (veterinary, dentistry, grooming etc) for animals belonging to the elderly and to people with disabilities. A kind of “Pet Medicare” if you will.
  • Dog walking for seniors listed as an essential service as it increases depression in both owner and dog when they suddenly lose their walks for periods of time.
  • Financial assistance for senior pet owners of cats and dogs, such as free government registration with local governments, free microchipping and a 50% subsidy on a national government run pet insurance scheme.

Volunteers shared a message for the community.

They stressed what essential service organisations like POOPs provide and “howby (volunteers) just giving as little as 30 minutes of their time once a weekthey not only assist in keeping dogs happy and healthy, but also have thepotential to bring so many rewards to our mainly elderly clientele.”

“But it doesn’t stop there” one volunteer said. “Who amongst us doesn’t feelbetter after we have taken a dog for a walk and chatted to their owner?”

_Featured Image – Photo Credit: _RSPCA NSW__

Image 1 – Photo credit: Pet Medical Crisis

Image 2 – Jennifer Hunt and Jed -Photo credit: Pet Medical Crisis

_Image 3 – Photo credit: _POOPS WA__

Image 4 – Meals on Wheels Central Coast – Paula dresses up on a weekly basisto help bring joy to our clients and obviously her dogs are an important partof her life. She has also taken Sunny and Shadow to our Community Restaurantover the years to brighten our clients’ lives.

Caroline Zambrano

Caroline Zambrano is a pet journalist with 18+ years experience in the petindustry, editing and writing for a number of pet magazines, such asAustralian Dog Lover, Dogs Life, AU/NZ National Geographic Kids, TheAustralian Veterinarian, Better Homes and Gardens and others. She also does PRfor pet

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